Dee Rees's Mudbound
Sundance 2017. Mississippi, 1940s.
We begin with Justin Chang, writing for the Los Angeles Times on the latest from Dee Rees, whose Pariah screened at Sundance in 2011: "Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound sketches a vivid, dirt-under-the-nails panorama of 1940s Mississippi farm country, centered on the tightly bound interactions between a white couple, the McAllans (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), and the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers (played by actors including Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan and Jason Mitchell) who work on their farmland. Rees intersperses the voice-overs of multiple characters throughout, a technique that takes some getting used to. But it also pays off with a richly nuanced understanding of the sheer pervasiveness and variety of racist attitudes in the Jim Crow era."
"This is a giant of a story, very much the soul of America in microcosm," writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. "A hundred well-placed plot breadcrumbs lead us to our perfect ending, but apart from scriptwriting craft Rees gets in some bravura scenes of high tension. There are tank battles, dogfights, torrential rainstorms and tense scenes of multigenerational whiskey drinking. And then there are the performances. Mudbound is a rarity: a true ensemble piece with no 'main character.'"
Flavorwire's Jason Bailey adds that the "shifting narration allows multiplicity of agency—it’s no single person’s story, so it’s not told from any single perspective."
It's a "densely textured, populous narrative, which is given novelistic room to breathe and a slow-burn intensity that builds to a shattering conclusion," writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter.
"As Tamar-kali’s Dolby-mixed score swells all around, cinematographer Rachel Morrison supplies widescreen views of dramatic Mississippi sunsets, rain-drenched fields, and makeshift wooden houses that look ready to collapse in on themselves," writes Variety's Peter Debruge. "But editor Mako Kamitsuna has so much material to wrestle in the film’s first hour that the priority must remain on the characters—plus, Rees is right not to romanticize the story’s setting or circumstances."
At the AV Club, A.A. Dowd adds that "this is an enormous leap forward in ambition, craft, and scope: a sophomore swing for the fences, apparently lavish enough in budget (reportedly $20 million, which Rees really makes count) or at least production values to be excluded from the U.S. Dramatic competition. Had it been included, it’d be hard to imagine a different film winning."
"Positioning itself as an epic of differing perspectives and histories, the film seems to imply a more ambitious version of itself," suggests Josh Cabrita in the Notebook. "But Mudbound chugs along without fuss or complication. The characters are sculpted in broad strokes that ratify a universally affirming message, boiling down to a notion of love and sacrifice which next to no one will disagree with."
"Mudbound is full of strong performances, singular moments, and a heavy heart, but it’s an over-ambitious affair that struggles to find the right balance between its many characters," finds Anthony Kaufman in Screen.
More from Gregory Ellwood (Playlist, B+), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, B+), Steve Pond (TheWrap), Mike Ryan (Uproxx) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). Interviews with Rees: James Rainey (Variety) and Graham Winfrey (IndieWire).
Updates, 1/27: "Though not quite as huge," writes the Voice's Bilge Ebiri, "Mudbound at times reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, with its tale of two men on opposite sides of the class struggle and its depiction of landowners who imagine themselves fair-minded and good but prove feckless in the face of absolute evil (fascism in 1900’s case, racism in Mudbound’s). Like Bertolucci’s film, Mudbound finds a simmering regret beneath a breathless narrative filled with melodrama and violence. And its vision of a world where class, cowardice, and extremism circumscribe our common humanity is devastating."
"The third act is full of high drama, and that drama is rendered all the more resonant by the non-traditional groundwork laid early on," writes Dan Schoenbrun for Filmmaker. More from Jordan Raup (Film Stage, B) and Erin Whitney (ScreenCrush).
Updates, 1/28: "To my mind," writes Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson, "Mudbound makes the critical error that so many novel-to-film adaptations do, trying to include too many disparate story threads from the book, giving the film an arbitrary, episodic flow."
And Tomris Laffly interviews Rees for RogerEbert.com.
Updates, 1/30: "By the time it approaches the end point suggested in its opening scene, Mudbound has a half-dozen plates spinning, having set them in motion so deftly that it’s easy not to have noticed," writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. "That’s how rich Rees’s film is, extending empathy to all of its characters while providing excuses for none of them, especially not the ones benefiting most from systemic oppression. It’s a film about the past, but it’s also one about intersectionality, about the strengths and the limits of the connections that can form between people based on shared experiences of gender, of race, of war. It’s a story that may look old-fashioned, but sure doesn’t feel that way."
"There's a dynamite performance at the very center of it, courtesy of Jason Mitchell," writes Rolling Stone's David Fear. "His WWII veteran, who comes home from fighting fascists to face down prejudice, both grounds the saga and gives it a sense of forward dramatic momentum; the more you watch him and fellow ex-soldier Garrett Hedlund bond over their experiences, the more you wished the whole movie was simply about them."
Tomris Laffly for Vulture: "Along with cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Rees’s lens superbly distinguishes the Jacksons’ life from McAllan’s—darker tones in the Jackson household contrast to the soothing colors of the McAllans’. Throughout the film's two-plus hour run time, she captures the elemental grit of the landscape with the expansive majesty of a Western, unearthing the gloom and dismay buried in the mud. But the biggest accomplishment of Mudbound is its restraint; it's a lyrical lament that aims both for the heart and the mind."
And Chris O'Falt interviews Morrison for IndieWire.
Meantime, Variety's Brent Lang and Ramin Setoodeh report that "Netflix has closed on multi-territory rights" to the tune of $12.5 million, "making it the largest deal to come out of Sundance 2017."
For the full 2017 Sundance on Fandor experience, go here.